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COVID-19 has revealed the critical role of both formal and informal essential workers in supporting economies, businesses and societies. During the different waves of the pandemic, essential workers continue to be physically present at the workplace, even if it means exposing themselves and their families to the risk of being infected. Although their contribution is essential to keep societies functioning well during the pandemic, many are still part of the informal economy, receive low wages, have insecure contracts, work under demanding conditions and have limited access to social protection.
Across the world, millions of cashiers, food preparation workers and home care aides are earning below average wages, have difficulties in affording basic household expenses, and would not be able to pay an unexpected medical bills. Others face poor working conditions such as job insecurity, low work autonomy and low prospects for career advancement. In the case of informal workers, according to a survey from Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), by mid-2021 their earnings were only 64% of their pre-pandemic income, still lagging substantially behind the typical worker.
Social dialogue provides tools that can help to improve the working lives of essential workers. Building upon the enabling (or fundamental) rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, social dialogue enables workers to organise and promote their collective interest. Moreover—and importantly—collective representation provides policy makers, both governments and businesses, with a counterpart they can engage with in order to reach balanced outcomes. These shared approaches can benefit everybody through a structural process of dialogue and negotiation. For example, in Uruguay new legislation was approved in 2006 to extend labour law to domestic workers, set out basic conditions for their employment and establish a framework for tripartite wage-related negotiation. Among other outcomes, the new law resulted in a 75% increase in social security registrations between 2006 and 2018 and in a reduction of poverty rates among domestic workers from 30% in 2006 to 14% in 2017.
A structural recognition of the contribution of essential workers would contribute to social justice, but it would also increase the resilience of those sectors and occupations that would again be in the frontline in case of a new shock (such as another pandemic). Besides recognition in terms of upwards valorisation of remuneration, working conditions and work-related protection, essential workers are demanding a “seat at the table” to ensure policy decisions are not taken for them but together with them.
To further highlight how social dialogue can help to improve the lives of essential workers, in partnership with Open Society Foundations the Global Deal is organising the Global Deal Conference: A Better Future for Essential Workers on 6 and 7 April, 2022. The event will bring together governments, business leaders, worker representatives and international organisations like the OECD to share examples of solutions and practices that have proven to be successful during the pandemic and that should be sustained in the longer term. Register your place to join us!